Back Into the Web: Roger Stern on Amazing Spider-Man

Roger Stern on Amazing Spider-Man

The Hobgoblin. The alien costume. “The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man.” Some of the most legendary Spider-Man stories ever were written by Roger Stern…and next month, he’s back.

A favorite among fans and pros alike, Stern is also well-known for his work on The Avengers, Dr. Strange…and a little book called The Death of Superman. For the last few years, he’s been more visible in other media, including a series of Smallville novels. But with December’s Amazing Spider-Man #580, illustrated by Lee Weeks, Stern returns to the character who helped launch his career…and introduces a new foe in the process.

We had a chance to talk with Stern about going back to Spidey, how the character has changed, and whether or not the character’s marriage was a mistake. Set back for a look at what makes Spider-Man tick, by one of the writers who helped define the character.

Newsarama: Roger, tell us about your new story for Amazing Spider-Man #580.

Roger Stern: It's about 22 pages long. There are lots of panels with pretty pictures drawn by Lee Weeks, and balloons and captions written by Yours Truly.

Oh, you mean the content? Basically, there's a new bad guy in town…a man with no face. He's bulletproof and he robs banks. And Spider-Man can't lay a finger on him. Adventure ensues.

Plus, there's Aunt May, Joe Robertson, and a couple of faces that haven't been seen in quite a while.

NRAMA: How did this come about?

RS: It was all pretty straightforward. I was contacted by Steve Wacker, who asked if I would like to write a story for Amazing Spider-Man. I'd worked with Steve once before, on a project for another publisher. That project never actually saw print, but it was fun working with Steve, so when he offered me a Spider-Man assignment…well, he didn't have to ask more than once.

NRAMA: Have you had a chance to work with some of the other writers currently involved with Spider-Man? If so, any thoughts on them or their work?

RS: I haven’t yet had a chance to speak or work directly with any of them, but I've really been enjoying their stories. Of course, I've been enjoying Bob Gale's work ever since he and Robert Zemeckis wrote the movies I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars. And with Marc Guggenheim's work, I can't decide which I enjoy more…his Spider-Man stories or Eli Stone.

NRAMA: Many comic writers cite your work as a major influence -- how does it feel to have made that kind of impact?

RS: Do they really? I've had colleagues tell them that they liked certain stories I'd written, but I wasn't aware of anyone citing me as an influence. That's very flattering.

NRAMA: What's it been like coming back to the Amazing Spider-Man?

RS: At the risk of trotting out an old cliché, it's been like coming home. Great, great fun. And I got to have Lee Weeks draw my story! Man, I've wanted to work with him for years. And thanks to the Wacker-Man, I finally got my chance.

NRAMA: “Wacker-Man.” That’s…that’s going to give me nightmares.

What aspects of Spider-Man have changed since your initial run, and what parts remain the same?

RS: Well, he's really been through the wringer, hasn't he? Fortunately for me, most of the weirder stuff -- going public with his secret identity, marrying the wrong girl -- has all been dealt with, so I don't have to.

The Peter Parker appearing in the Amazing Spider-Man is finally back to the way I like him. He's recognizable to me again -- in both his identities -- so all I have to worry about is writing good stories.

NRAMA: You were doing some stories for a European Spider-Man book a while back -- are you still working on those?

RS: That was a good while back, well over three years ago at this point. I wrote three six-page Spider-Man strips for Panini UK's Marvel Rampage magazine. My UK editor Tom O'Malley liked them enough that he also asked me to write three Hulk strips for the magazine. It was a good challenge, crafting stories for such a short page-count.

NRAMA: What are your thoughts on "Brand New Day" and how marriage affects the storytelling opportunities for Spider-Man? Obviously, the wedding had a bit of a rush from outside forces, but do you feel that Spider-Man could be married and still have interesting storylines?

RS: Could? Possibly. Should? Not so much. The thing is, Spider-Man is a mystery to his general public -- he could be anyone under that mask. No one would know about his marital status -- or even give it much thought, unless they were enemies looking to strike at him through loved ones. In those pre-“Brand-New-Day” stories, it wasn't really Spider-Man who was married, it was Peter Parker.

And Peter for the most part works best as a young, single guy. I would never say he should never marry. But he certainly should not be married to Mary Jane Watson. That's just crazy.

The only way the writers were able to keep that marriage going on the printed page for as long as they did was by changing who Pete and MJ were, by turning them into different people. And a lot of talented writers worked on Spider-Man during that period, doing their best, but that marriage never quite worked for to me. It was like hearing about two old friends who'd run off and made this terrible mistake.

I even wrote a few stories about Pete and Mary Jane as a married couple – Spider-Man: Hobgoblin Lives and an Amazing Spider-Man Annual among them -- and the one part of those stories that made me uncomfortable was the marriage. It just felt wrong.

NRAMA: You made a point in your initial run on Spider-Man on creating new villains, or at least putting him against characters not usually associated with him. In "Brand New Day," there's been a strong emphasis on this as well. What, to your way of thinking is the key to a good Spider-Man antagonist, and where do you feel some attempts at new characters go wrong?

RS: Spider-Man's best adversaries have been as interesting, as fascinating, as Peter Parker is. And of course, most of them have been designed by guys named Ditko or Romita (Senior and Junior) -- so they look great, as well.

In fact, I'll go out on a limb here and say that the biggest challenge to anyone trying to develop a Spider-Man villain is to design a character that can stand up to the legacy of the Vulture, Doctor Octopus, the Sandman, Electro, Mysterio, and the Green Goblin. It's no wonder that so many readers are happiest when those guys return to give Our Hero a hard time. They're great characters in their own rights.

The trick, of course, is to find something new and different for them to do each time, so that you're doing more than just reprising the old stories. Repeating stories…that's the main way things can go wrong.

And that's one of the better arguments for tossing new antagonists into the mix. You give Spider-Man the problem of facing off against someone he's never met before. And if you do it right, readers want to see the new villains return…which leads you back to the problem of finding ways to do something new and different. Balancing the old and the new can be a never-ending battle -- to borrow another hero's burden -- but that's the writer's job. It's a challenge, but it can be fun to exercise those brain cells and meet that challenge.

NRAMA: Following up from that -- have you gotten a chance to see any of the new villains from "Brand New Day," and if so, do you have any favorites?

RS: I've seen all of the ones who've appeared so far, and they’re all pretty intriguing. Favorites? Ask me today, and I'll say Mister Negative. But ask me in another hour, and I might say Paper Doll or Screwball.

Or Anti-Venom! Man, that was a sharp design. Before this, I never much cared for the look -- or the character -- of Venom. But Dan Slott and J.R. have me interested in Eddie Brock for the first time ever.

NRAMA: Would you be interested in coming back to the Spider-Man books for a longer arc or an ongoing run?

RS: Of course, I would. Steve Wacker already has me at work on a three-part arc for sometime next year, but I'd love to get in on more of the action. The Spider-Meisters look like they're having a lot of fun.

NRAMA: What are some other projects you are currently working on?

RS: Well, I've collaborated with Kurt Busiek on Marvels: Eye of the Camera #3-#6. That is part of a sequel to Kurt's earlier Marvels mini-series. Our issues should start appearing in January 2009.

And I've heard back from some other editors about possible projects in the New Year. Wish me luck!

NRAMA: What's the biggest difference in working on novels vs. comics, particularly when you're dealing with a comic-like premise?

RS: With novels, you're telling a story in a different medium, and different media have different advantages and limitations.

With the comics medium, your main limitation is space. There are only so many pages, so many panels, available in which to tell your story. There are spatial considerations with any print media -- you don't want to tell a story so long that the book is too heavy to lift or the binding gives way -- but prose is a little less restrictive than comics.

If you're telling a story on radio or television, your big limitation is time -- there are only so many minutes available to tell the tale. Time is a factor with movies as well, but the limits are not as strict.

And then there's what I like to call the Explosion Factor. With motion pictures or television, if you want a really awe-inspiring explosion, you need a good effects crew and a good bit of money. With radio, you need a good sound effects guy. With comics, you need a good artist.

But with prose, if you want that awe-inspiring explosion, all you have are your skills as a writer. If you want to sell that explosion in cold type, you are out there all by yourself, using every trick of language and storytelling you have to sell the readers on the scope and importance of that explosion.

On the other hand, with prose you can have your characters engage in long, meaty discussions or even monologues that would be a series of boring-looking talking head shots in a comic book.

It all balances out in the end.

NRAMA: What are some current comics or comic-related projects that you enjoy?

RS: You mean, aside from Amazing Spider-Man? I mainly try to follow the work of fellow writers Kurt Busiek, Gail Simone, Geoff Johns, Paul Dini…and, of course, my youthful former protégé Tom Peyer (he always insists on the "youthful" part)…wish there was more by him out there.

And I love the Marvel Essentials and the DC Showcase "phonebooks." What a great package! You really get a lot of bang for your buck with those collections.

NRAMA: Anything you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?

RS: How about that election? We have a President-Elect who's a Spider-Man fan! It's like I've been saying for years, people who grew up reading comics are moving into positions of power in media, in business, and now in the Executive Branch of the federal government. Is that cool or what? I don't know about you, but I'm very happy that the next President of the United States knows that "in this world, with great power there must also come -- great responsibility!"

Amazing Spider-Man #580 is currently scheduled to ship on December 10.

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